Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me – My Four Lessons and Takeaways

Between the World and MeI presented my synopsis of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday at the Urban Engagement Book Club — to a large audience in an over-flowing room. (sponsored by CitySquare).

I’ve presented synopses of buseinss books each month for 18 years at the First Friday Book Synsopsis. And I’ve presented synopses of books on social justice issues monthly for 12 years at the Urban Engagement Book Club.

This was the toughest book to read I have ever read, or ever presented.

I can try to understand this book, but I confess I cannot fully understand this book. It is a book written by a black father to his teenage son. It received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015. Toni Morrison said about this book “This is required reading.” I think that every white person alive should read this book to try to understand what has done done that is so very harmful.

Here are some excerpts from the book:

• to his son

Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.

• some historical perspective

At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export.   The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” declared Mississippi as it left the Union, “the greatest material interest of the world.

• reflecting on his hometown neighborhood experience

Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.   

• though he affirms that every black male lived (lives) in fear of losing his body, he also states …

…the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know. 

• some closing, personal thoughts

I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori (his son), because they must ultimately stop themselves.
And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.

Byron Sanders, CitySquare Board Member, leading the discussion after the synopsis presentation

Byron Sanders, CitySquare Board Member, leading the discussion after the synopsis presentation

What is this book? This book is pretty much all narrative – thus presenting a challenge for one who provides book synopses… The book is, among other things, a letter to his teenage son; an autobiography; a very personal history, with emphasis on the fear among black people for their own bodies.

The concept that most gripped me was this: that black people are viewed as and treated as “the below.” (See this earlier blog post that I wrote, prompted by this concept: Not Just “The Other,” But Also “The Below” – Insight from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and MeAt issue is this:

vs./rather than (”worse than”)

Mr. Coates includes this: “a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.” — Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage.

Here are my four lessons and takeaways:

#1 – White America really does not own up to, and come to grips with, (and make amends for/reparations for), the centuries-long systemic use of plunder.

#2 – Black people live in fear of the destruction of their bodies – perpetual fear of such destruction.

#3 – There is no instruction or counsel that white people should give to black people. White people have pretty much lost that right/place.

#4 – We probably all need to read – on purpose – books that stretch our understanding. Maybe this will help us develop genuine understanding and empathy.

One other comment. I try to select books to present that have important, valuable, useful content. Each book I present has important ideas and lessons and principles to learn.

But every now and then I get “lucky” in my reading experience… This book; this is written by a world-class writer; Ta-Nehisi Coates is a truly great writer. And his book is clear, honest – and it has such soaring prose. Seriously, read this book, to learn, to reflect, and to enjoy a great writer at his best — his best so far; he is still a young man.


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